Sunday, December 14, 2014

The case AGAINST BURKE for trainer of the year.

I completely respect Perry Lefko and have enjoyed his writing on horse racing for many years. He is a fine writer and knows something about racing.
In the recent addition of the Harness Racing Update, Perry Lefko and Garnet Barnsdale did a point/counterpoint argument to state the case for either Ron Burke or Jimmy Takter to be named the Trainer of the Year. Lefko heralded Burke, while Barnsdale touted Takter. I think it is a third person, but mostly, I take issue with Lefko's points on Burke, and don't agree entirely but partially with Barnsdale's reasons for picking Takter. 
In this blog, I am going to challenge and, in my view, refute Lefko's arguments that support Ron Burke for trainer of the year.
We all have opinions. His are his, and mine are mine.
Nobody will agree with both of us, and I suspect most will agree with him and not with me. It's just how I see it, and what I know from my many years on the inside of racing, and what I still see when I go to the track. Nobody is right or wrong here. These are opinions based on determinations of what we see and what we think we know.
On to the blog.  

Year end awards, and really any type of awards, are mostly popularity contests. I think we all get that. At best, they are highly subjective, and at worst, they are voted on by those who aren't objective, or aren't really capable of being objectively critical. That is mostly because they are critics first, and not former participants who understand what it takes to be the best at the field they are judging.
And that's okay, as long as you understand that. 
Their choices come from a specific place.
When that choice contains Niatross, or Somebeachsomewhere, or even Muscle Hill, it is a no-brainer. But when you are talking trainers, performance and varying degrees of that, it's a tough call. We all have opinions and all come from different places to arrive at that decision. 
So, as someone who did train horses for a few years, and was very hands on at all levels of doing so, I have some understanding of the different levels that compose "trainers" these days.
I will lay those out briefly here.
First, you have the pure horse trainer. This type takes the horse, whatever ability and soundness level he has, and hones that to the best the horse can be over the amount of time he can maintain that. Some horses can do it long term, like say a Foiled Again, some can do it in spurts, like say a Sweet Lou, while others have incredible ability but have soundness and other issues that mean the trainer makes a huge difference in terms of how the horse turns out. Trixton definitely falls into that category, if you know anything about the horse. Others are horses that have a high level of ability, but need something extra the trainer can get out of them. McWicked falls into that category.

Second, you have the conditioner. Most trainers these days are conditioners. They take a somewhat ready made horse, and they get him to be the best he can be in terms of "now" performance. And clearly there is nothing wrong with that, nor  is that the easiest job either. The best trainers do better at this than the guys who are just a cut below them, and the ones who are a much lower level than even those. Most trainers are judged on their ability to condition horses and make the ticket. Burke, Takter and many others are all good at this. If you weren't, you wouldn't stay at the top. It is a minimum basic skill any successful trainer must have.I would say Casie Coleman is the best at it for the last 10 years, year in, year out, with just about any kind of horse. When she had claimers, she could take a 30 claimer and consistently improve them and even at times make them high end FFA horses. That takes talent to do it more than once or twice.

Third, you have the managers and businessmen. These types might have a certain amount of skill from the first two categories, but mostly, their best talent as trainers is finding the good horses, buying them, racing them where they can make money, selling them and getting more stock. They also usually carry very large stables so they have both the clout to do what they do best, and the means to always keep getting more. They are mostly volume trainers. They also can just rotate the good ones in and the bad ones to the farm for the proper rest. It is the best of both worlds if you have this option. Many trainers don't. They must keep working with tired, sore, lame or older horses and try to squeeze performance where it mostly isn't there. That is the reality of the business for the everyday horse trainer who isn't at the extreme top of the food chain. Ron Burke has perfected this system, one that Casie Coleman did before him. She made the blueprint and he improved it to an even higher level.

Nobody does it better than Ron Burke and Todd Pletcher in the T-Breds. They have honed it to an art form, with Ron Burke doing what nobody else has ever done, or thought could be done. Casie Coleman tried it for a while but it eats you alive over time, as she found out when she altered her personal and business model. Ron Burke gets off on it, lives for it, and certainly has become a successful and rich man by employing it. I take nothing away from him at all for that. I doubt he will continue to do so. At some point, it will wear you out.

If we were voting for Businessman or Manager of the year, then Ron Burke is the virtual slam dunk there. Nobody has ever done it better, and he seems to do it better every year, and top himself. The industry obviously has issues with that, and they are trying to reign him in, as Gural and others have put rules in place to shut that sort of thing down. Burke didn't like it, but he realizes he has no choice and will capitulate. I doubt you will see him continue to put up insane numbers like he did the last two years. But that has nothing to do with being a trainer. That is the business side of it. 

Highlighted in red are Perry's quotes from the Harness Racing Update piece, with his main arguments in support of Burke.

Perry has based his choice for Trainer of the year on the premise that, in his own words,

"Burke has proven his horsemanship"

I'm not sure what qualifies Perry Lefko to determine that. But lets say he is qualified to do so.
What was his argument?

"Never was his more dominance in this division more evident than in the Oct.31 Hoosier Park Pacing derby when Bettor's Edge led a quarter of Burke-trainees across the wire, sweeping the top four positions in the race."

You don't even have to know anything about horses, sports or betting to know that if you corner the market and have all the chips in the poker game, you will win. You don't even have to be a good trainer at all to do that. That has nothing to do with training. It has to do with monopolies, and its why it is frowned upon in our societies when big telecoms or banks try to merge and squeeze everyone else out of the competition. If anything, it lessens the strength of the argument in favor of Burke. I would be much more impressed if he took one horse like McWicked, had no others in a division, and make him the top horse. That is an achievement. An achievement Casie Coleman pulled off this year, and to some extent, did with Vegas Vacation the year before.

"Burke did a fantastic job with Sweet Lou, who will likely be in contention for Horse of the Year Honors. This was a horse that had been a monster as a two-year-old, winning 10 of 12 starts, but the consistency of his production had fallen off as a three-year-old and four-year-old."

It is here that I had my biggest problem with Perry's argument.
He is giving Burke credit for turning Sweet Lou around, when in fact, he is the one who messed him up in the first place. He even admitted that. 

"It might run counter to trainer Ron Burke’s intuition, but less appears to be more with Sweet Lou.
Burke changed Sweet Lou’s between-race routine and the five-year-old male pacer has responded with a four-race win streak heading into Saturday’s (June 28) $500,000 Ben Franklin Pace at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs.
It is Sweet Lou’s longest streak since putting together six consecutive victories bridging his two- and three-year-old seasons. Sweet Lou was the 2011 Dan Patch Award winner as the best two-year-old male pacer in the U.S. and earned more than $1 million at age three, but endured a stretch of just four wins in 31 starts prior to his recent surge.
“We’ve backed off on him and he’s become more like a Thoroughbred,” Burke said. “I can’t ask him to race four weeks in a row; I can’t ask him to train in between when he’s racing. I just give him weeks now where he basically jogs and hangs out in the field."

Now, good on Burke for realizing, as a trainer, he didn't do a good job with Sweet Lou. As trainers, we all make mistakes and we try to get better. But, it took Burke a long time to figure that out. He actually gutted him as a 3yo when he should have been shut down, and only because the horse was so talented and great did he even grind out a good living after his elim for the NA Cup, when he clearly came out of that with major issues. It showed all the way from then on into the Little Brown Jug, when he got a good enough trip to hang around for 2nd. But he was never good from the NA Cup elim on to his 5 year old year.
I propose that if Burke was a better trainer, and horseman, say like a Jimmy Takter, he would have done better with Sweet Lou. More on that later when I make my case for Takter.

"And then you think about Foiled Again, last year's top horse at the age of nine. He chugged it out 26
times this year, winning six times and finishing in the top three 19 times.

What did Foiled Again win this year?
Well, he actually won 4 legs in the spring for the Levy at Yonkers, when the competition was thin and there was a serious fear factor in challenging Foiled Again until the final, when he got beat by a horse that didn't beat anyone significant the rest of the year, and he won the Quillen at Harrington in September when nobody at the top end of the division showed up, other than Team Burke and his road blocking crew who finished top 4 out of 8. Other than that, he didn't beat the top ones and he hardly won anything. He had an okay year. A good year. He is 10, and he is a great horse. But Burke didn't do much to get any more out of him than he probably had. That isn't a knock on Burke or a pat on the back. It just means, as a trainer, he didn't make a difference. 

Foiled Again is a warrior. Ron Burke didn't make him that. He was born that way. Send him out enough times, and he will grind out money. As he has his whole life. I don't think Burke could take much credit for Foiled Again. He is one of those few, like a Rambling Willie or Cam Fella that simply makes a trainer look good.  No matter what you do. Trainers who have trained understand that. 
The best thing, again, that Burke has done with Foiled Again, was find him, buy him and classify him in the right spots to win as much money as possible. Give him big credit for doing that. That isn't master training though. 

Again, Burke has done a fantastic job with Foiled Again over the years. He found him, bought him, spotted him to make the most of what he brings to the table, and has kept him going for a long time. But as for this year, the year in question we are talking about for the trainer of the year award, Foiled Again didn't beat much of anything and ground out cheques. Because he is talented and gritty enough to just keep doing that, Ron Burke or no Ron Burke.  
Good on Ron Burke that he has kept him at this level this long. But this year, he didn't do much with him other than throw him out there and spot him. 

"There are other examples of Burke's talent, including his first win in the Little Brown Jug. He did so with Limelight Beach, whom Burke had purchased privately back in July. He steadily guided the gelding along, and Limelight Beach came into the Jug strongly. After winning his heat he went into the final as the even-money favorite and took the lead from the start and was never headed."

Again, what did Burke do best here? He found Limelight Beach, used his big time bankroll and clout to buy him, spot him, and he happened to draw really well in the Jug and used that to capitalize on that day. We have seen less than superstar horses do that over and over again on Jug Day. Nicks Fantasy and Fake Left come to mind, two horses that did nothing else spectacular in their lives other than what they did on Jug Day. If Limelight Beach had done something before the Jug, and after, then I might concede to Perry's point on this horse, but he didn't. He did nothing. Just another example of Burke doing what he does best, which isn't being a master trainer. That takes nothing away from him, again, it just states the facts. I think there is a major difference here between great training and doing great business. And basically, its where I differ in terms of what I view as Trainer of The Year material.

"Now consider another of his three-year-old pacers, JK Endofanera. He started his sophomore season with three consecutive wins and came into the North America Cup as the 11-20 favorite in his elimination. He finished third after leading for much of the way, but a week later in the final
when the big money was on the line, he won at 12-1 odds, coming from off the pace. Burke made some equipment changes after the loss, which combined with a brilliant drive by Brian Sears, contributed to the upset win."

But this is really where I diverge from Perry's point on Burke. I was at Mohawk for the Somebeachsomewhere and NA Cup elims. I can tell you that JK Endofanera wasn't right at all, and Burke didn't seem interested or care to even do anything about it. It was only a stroke of luck that the horse made the final at all. The final he was able to win. Burke almost screwed his owners out of a chance for the big payday because he wasn't doing his job as a trainer. 

"JKEndofanera...locked on a line in the stretch."

That was Ken Middleton's call in the NA Cup elim, one which JKEndofanera got a very soft half which allowed him to barely hold 3rd. Otherwise, he misses the final. If you watch the Somebeachsomewhere, he was bearing out bad as well in that, but also got soft fractions. 
It was very easy to see when he warmed up for the Somebeachsomewhere that he was having serious issues. 
 How do I know that? Because of a discussion I had prior to that race.
Garnet arrived a bit after me to the track, and asked me if I liked anything. I said I didn't like anything that much, but I didn't like JK Endofanera off the way he was bearing out in warm up. He was already hurting then. I told him he might even get away with it that night, which he did, but the next week, in the NA Cup elim, he was even worse, and got beat as the heavy chalk, as Perry noted above. If anything from the pack had any pace, he misses the final. And obviously, those issues were fixable, as Burke took care of it AFTER  the elim. Great trainers don't let that happen. Takter didn't with Trixton.  
After the NA Cup, he got 6th in the final of the Meadowlands Pace, 5th in the final of the Cane at Tioga, and 3rd in the final of the Breeders Crown after the top 2 picks were scratched the day of the race and from the post parade. Otherwise, he won a few here and there, but didn't really perform to what he showed as a 2yo and leading up to the
Is that Burke's fault? Maybe not. Horses fail all the time. But he certainly didn't appear to be on top of it. Not from what I saw. I would argue that he consistently got out-trained by Casie Coleman on McWicked all season with regards to those two horses. If McWicked didn't get locked in in the final of the NA Cup, he would have won that too, and Burke wouldn't have even won that race with this horse. At least he was smart enough to figure out he didn't have much left, so he went out and bought Limelight Beach and won with him. It's what he does. And does best. One isn't good, don't fix him. Just get another one. That isn't good training. It's good business. 

"And Burke proved he can handle a temperamental trotter in Mission Brief, who won nine of 13 starts in her first season of racing. In each of her losses, she broke stride, so Burke's patience was tried by this fleet filly that was purchased for $150,000 as a yearling."

What? You have got to be kidding. 
The best thing Ron Burke did with regards to Mission Brief is figure out she was a great buy and make sure he bought her. She is a freak of nature, and he figured that out because he had trained her mothers brother the previous year. Good on him, again, for figuring that out. 

"A daughter of Muscle Hill out of the 2007 Breeders Crown-winning mare Southwind Serena, Mission Brief was purchased as a yearling for $150,000 at the Lexington Selected Sale. She is owned by Burke Racing, Our Horse Cents Stables, Weaver Bruscemi LLC and J&T Silva Stables.
Southwind Serena is a half-sister to Southwind Spirit, a Muscle Hill-sired colt that Burke also trains. Last year at age two, Southwind Spirit won the American-National Stakes and Kindergarten Classic final.
“It was the reason we looked at Mission Brief,” Burke said of the family connection. “And she was beautiful. That ($150,000) was the most we ever paid for a yearling and we thought we got a bargain.”
But as for training her, she lost several huge paydays because she wasn't prepared mentally to handle the racing she was asked to do. Is that Ron Burke's fault? Probably not. She is a very temperamental 2yo trotting filly. Burke can't be held responsible for that. But he also didn't do anything to make it better. He just tossed her out there over and over again. Sometimes she behaved and sometimes she didn't. That has zero to do with Burke as a trainer, either way.
If any credit goes to anyone there, it is Yannick Gingras, who figured her out on his own at the end of the year on how to keep her mind on racing and get her to the gate just right. I doubt Burke had anything to do with that. Burke's smartest move, again, was not as a trainer. He is shrewd, and figured out that having Gingras on her consistently would pay off due to his overall talent. That was correct, but that isn't good training. It is good management. 

Gingras expert handling of Mission Brief in the final of the Breeders Crown, and to some extent the elim was one of the greatest driving feats I have seen in terms of a driver making a big difference. If anything, it sealed him as the driver of the year. For me anyway. I doubt Burke had anything to do with that. Other than putting Gingras down, which as I said, was a smart move, but not a training feat.

"But, he made 28 million. he's got to be the best trainer." 

That is the argument you hear over and over. Really? How much money your horses make determine how great a trainer you are? If that is all that matters, then Burke gets it. Hands down. No discussion. He clearly makes more money training than anyone else on the planet. And he probably could not touch a horse and continue to do that.

From the Harness Racing Update article. It shows that Takter had a much higher win percentage and almost 4 times the earning per start. So, he is better on both of those variables as well.

Now, lets look at Takter. I could certainly make a strong case for him, based on all he did, but mostly one thing he did very well that had everything to do with training the actual horse.

 "But most of all there is the "Taktertonian" which surely will stand out in the mind of voters. That race was a microcosm of Takter's brilliance and dominance and that's why he is your 2014 Dan Patch Trainer of the Year winner."

-That was Garnet Barnsdale's main argument in favor of Takter.

In his argument for Takter as the trainer of the year, my friend Garnet Barnsdale argues that Takter was so dominant with all his trotters, at all age levels, that he should get it. There is something to that argument, but again, while I am certain that Takter as a horseman has a lot to do with those horses successes, I would also argue that if Trond Smedshammer or a handful of other trainers had most of those horses, they would turn out as good as they did with Takter. Takter also has huge clout like Burke, and the types of owners who put up big bucks to buy the best out there. For sure, that is mostly because of Takter's ability and his track record. He earned his status and place at the top of the mountain. No doubt.
Father Patrick, Nuncio and Trixton didn't come cheap.
Neither did Lifetime Pursuit, Shake It Cerry or a handful of others. Takter isn't working with a host of 10k yearlings here. 
But wait. That isn't entirely true. Nuncio was a 7k yearling, and while Trixton was a 360k yearling, he was a major project and challenge to become what he did. Trixton had major issues. That is common knowledge and an understatement. 

 "After the race, Takter said he was concerned about Trixton. "Trixton, here I'm a little concerned over him," said Takter. "He had bad hind ankles, he had to have surgery in that one, and I didn't like the way he went behind the gate there and he got really rough. I think it could be the end of him [racing]." 

Takter managed Trixton to a T. He drove him himself, and he raced him pretty easy relative to how much he could have gone with the horse several times. He did just enough to win and never pushed him. He got him to the Hambo and capitalized when Gingras had a brain cramp that day with Father Patrick and decided to try something new on the gate. Otherwise, Takter would have won the top 3 in the Hambo, with Trixton or Father Patrick being 1-2.
Takter is a great trainer. There is no disputing that. Or shouldn't be. You could even say he is a master horseman. But that wouldn't get him trainer of the year for me if that was all he did this year.

 I worked with this horse (Trixton) every single day, I handled him from day one. He had to come a long way, I have to thank (Dr.) Patty Hogan, who fixed him up after he got hurt (sesamoid fracture at the end of his 2-year-old season). There are so many people behind you that have a big part. I’ve got a great team and I thank all of them for what they’ve done for me.” 

No, what he did with Trixton is what puts him over the top for me. If you know something about the history of Trixton, and what it took to get him to where he was and get what he did out of him this year, then you have no choice but to pick Takter over Burke, when you add it to all the other things he did, which Garnet laid out well in his argument for Takter. But, if you take Trixton out of the equation, then its a complete toss up. Burke? Takter? Casie Coleman? I would say all 3 are right there if not for Trixton. As a trainer, Takter made the difference for his owners. They won the Hambo because of Takter's training skills. That is why he is trainer of the year to me. 
Many won't agree with my take. And that's fine. They are wowed by Burke's numbers and the races his horses won. I'm not. Not as a trainer. As a businessman yes. He is the best there was to this point in terms of making money at training horses. Not because he is a great trainer. Because he is a very smart guy. He is a master manager. Takter is a master horseman. That is the difference. The difference for me.

Ron Burke wins more races than any other trainer in harness racing. So what? He also loses more. He wins 20%. That's great. But, he also has multiple entries in stakes races, buys fresh live horses and can rotate horses all over the country to find spots for them. He doesn't have to be much of a training genius to win races if he can do that. 
But he won 28 million. Yes, that's true. and that is a great accomplishment. But in terms of earnings per start, Takter has him by quite a bit. And I would say Casie Coleman has them both by a bit more than that. 
Just because you make the most cars, like GM or Ford does, doesn't mean you make better cars than Honda or Mercedes. Its a flawed argument to begin with. Volume and sheer numbers don't make a great trainer. Performance does. And in terms of performance, I would say Takter outperformed Burke, and Coleman outperformed them both. Coleman only slightly more than Takter, and that is a toss up which I would concede could go either way.

Is Ron Burke a very good horseman? Probably. You don't get to his level without being one. Is he a great horseman? I don't think so. Is Takter? I don't think there is any doubt about that. His track record speaks for itself there. As for Coleman, I think she has proven with all sorts of horses that she gets results. Because she is the best of both worlds when it comes to Takter's skills and Burke's eye for horses and management skills.
So, my case for Coleman as Trainer of The Year. I know she isn't going to be. But she is my choice.

"Then, McWicked came Coleman’s way last spring. Owned by Ed James, one of her longtime friends, McWicked was a well-regarded but underperforming 2-year-old. James asked for help. Coleman liked the horse and agreed to train him."

McWicked is a very nice horse. But Casie Coleman made him a great horse.

 “Casie said, ‘This is a real good horse. I can make him a great horse.’ So she did. I’m not that smart as far as horses go. But I’m smart as far as people go. And I’m fortunate enough to know good people and I’m fortunate enough that they’ll take my horses. I’ve had very good luck.”

McWicked is the type of horse that danced every dance he could this year. The type of horse that won more money than ANY other 3 year old this year. And she only had one 3yo male pacer of that caliber. She didn't have a barn full. She didn't go and get a few midseason to try and replace him. Her was right there in the NA Cup, won the Adios and was right there in many others. When he tailed off a bit, she fixed him up and won the Breeders Crown and Progress Pace. He was near or at the top of his game from May until mid December. When he needed shutting down, she did that, and brought him back when he was ready to perform again, and perform he did. It was master training, start to finish.
In addition, she dominated the Ontario Sires Stakes with a host of Sportswriter colts, none of which she paid that much for as yearling. Bob, Ben And John, Southwind Mischief, and a host of others took home several big paydays for her and her connections. In addition, she saved the best for last, bringing out Reverend Hanover to win out and prove that he is a likely contender for the big dances next season. She and her owners didn't pay much for him either. Her patience and skill as a trainer really showed on him. He was certainly ready to come right out of the box and dominate, which he did. Nobody would dispute that he was very well prepped to win every race that he ended up winning. It was training mastery. Something she has done many times over. She won two jugs in a row with Michaels Power and Vegas Vacation. One of those was a very lame horse, while the other was terrible gaited in his elim and she made a shoeing change between the elim and the final which was the difference maker. She had one chance at the 3 peat, with McWicked and got him there and he was competitive, although not good on Jug Day. Unlike Burke, she couldn't just go out and buy another one. 
She also did a great job with Major Dancer this year, who was probably not in the top 3 or 4 3yo fillies this year in terms of talent. She was 2nd in the final of the Breeders Crown, and spotted well all year to earn more than 400k. She won the Town Pro final at Mohawk and many NYSS races, and was right there in many of the big dances. 
I don't know her overall average earnings per horse this year, but I suspect per start she is far ahead of Burke and probably well ahead of Takter. 
And when she did have a huge stable like Burke, she had just as good numbers in terms of percentage winners and earnings per start. But its a tough lifestyle, and not one she wants anymore. That doesn't make her less than a trainer like Burke who seems to live for that. 
"Last winter, Coleman began training her own self. She had long been overweight, which, combined with her fast-paced and pressurized lifestyle, was turning her into an irascible boss. She took a sabbatical, hired a personal trainer, changed her diet and lost 74 pounds.
The backstretch is regularly fueled by coffee, cola, beer and stronger spirits. Coleman now drinks water and green tea.
“I’ve got about 10 more pounds I want to take off, and it’s still a struggle,” she said. “But I am a lot more refreshed. I feel better. I have more energy. And I’m not such a (expletive deleted).”
She is drawing lines in her early prime. Another line: No more claimers, and no more new owners or new horses. She has a share of most of the horses she trains. She owns valuable studs that draw healthy fees. She neither needs nor desires any other business."

In some ways, Casie Coleman was Ron Burke before Ron Burke was Ron Burke, in terms of the business end of training horses. She still is, she just doesn't have big numbers anymore. But her performance is just as good, and I would argue, this year, even better. 

So, my choice for Trainer of the Year is Casie Coleman. But, if you only gave me Burke or Takter, I take Takter, hands down. 

I guess, at the end of the day, I think Trainer of the Year should be based on something you actually did as the trainer of the horse. Burke does a lot of great things, but my view is that mainly they aren't training related. If you think the things he does are training related, you vote for him. If you think making a big difference on a great horse like Trixton or McWicked is what matters here, you vote for Takter or Coleman. I vote for Coleman, but I would concede Takter is the logical choice.